Dunkirk myth never told the real story
The British tell themselves they’re at their best when standing alone but the long history of empire disproves that, says David Aaronovitch.
By January even Britain should be Churchilled out. In June it was Brian Cox’s turn to shake his wattles as the Greatest Briton in the movie Churchill, and in the new year Gary Oldman will discover new jowls as the lead in Darkest Hour. In between you can have your senses blitzed by Dunkirk, which opens in Britain today and which I saw in preview earlier in the week. Stranded men, gallant Spitfire pilots, small boats, wobbly (but ultimately firm) chins and some bars from Elgar. The movie ends with Churchill’s ‘‘fight on the beaches’’ speech, and it seemed to me by the end that 1940 was not just our finest hour, it has increasingly become our only hour.
I think this matters because the overwhelming nature of this, our national myth, has an effect on the decisions we make. My evidence for this is largely impressionistic, but you can’t have incontrovertible stats every week.
During and after the referendum last year I spoke to a number of voters on either side of the big question. Naturally some people talked about immigration or the economy, but more important in the conversation of many of the Leave voters was an idea of Britain as they imagined it had once been. In the past this Britain had run itself and had been in hock to no one. It hadn’t depended on anyone else and no outsider had told it what to do.
It was very easy for me to recognise this image. It is Dad’s Army and Goodnight Sweetheart, a myth of ourselves alone, unencumbered at the last by foreign weakness, forced back on to our own reservoirs of steadfastness and discovering a capacity to innovate.
By ‘‘myth’’ I don’t mean that all of this is untrue. The Dunkirk evacuation was something of a miracle and the fall of France left Britain existentially exposed, yet we prevailed. But what preceded Dunkirk was not just the unhappy policy of appeasement, supported in its day by a plurality of British voters, but nine months of a war conducted for the most part with stunning incompetence. In the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk, far from the ‘‘well done!’’ the returning soldiers get in the movie, Mass Observation reported that civilian morale in many places was at rock bottom.
There is one other aspect of the finest hour myth that is more pernicious than all the others. And it was given an odd illustration this week in the Adonis affair. If you recall, Lord Adonis gave a controversial interview to The House magazine. Viewed historically, he said, leaving the EU was a gigantic national strategic decision. It was right up there with ‘‘decolonisation in the 1950s and 60s and appeasement in the 1930s’’. Then he added: ‘‘We got it right on decolonisation; we got it wrong on appeasement’’.
The reaction was predictable. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, was double a’d (astonished and appalled) that Adonis ‘‘should have selected such a comparison, given all the appalling violence and death that Hitler visited on Europe and the rest of the world’’.
It is an irritating feature of the age that even our leaders no longer understand the difference between an analogy and a comparison, let alone an equation. But then I suppose that if everyone did, much social media and some radio programmes would collapse for lack of outrage.
But what intrigued me was the entire absence of objection to one half of the Adonis analogy decolonisation. It was 50 per cent of his examples, and no one mentioned it. Just as, on Tuesday, we passed the 70th anniversary of royal assent being given to the Indian Independence Act, and if anyone talked about it, then I’m a Nicobar islander. That day in 1947 was the day the Queen’s dad declared himself no longer to be the Emperor of India. It had been on the stamps, it had been on the coins, and then it was gone. Seventy years ago this June Lord Mountbatten had abruptly announced the date for independence and the setting up of India and Pakistan, for August 15. The maps weren’t even ready, but the British authorities withdrew and tens of millions of people began migrating to either side of the new borders. Maybe a million died. No Harry Styles film.
But in the preceding eight years 190,000 Indians had died, were wounded or were captured in the service of the British Empire, from Burma to Italy and North Africa.
So we were never alone. Not even in the period between independence and our joining the EEC. From Ghana in 1957 to Brunei in 1984, and taking in places like Malta and the Maldives along the way, we divested ourselves, necessarily, of our great global obligations.
For centuries in some cases we had manipulated our global reach to serve our own interests and now this was ending.
Yet, culturally, you would never guess it now. You know those odd early scenes in The Crown involving verandas and black people? Empire. We managed to get through six series of aristocratic doings in Downton Abbey, set at empire’s zenith, practically without mention of it. The era of empire, when we were not a defiant, self-sufficient island (as we never were) has been whitewashed over as surely as the frescoes in a Puritan church makeover.
After seeing the film I took this to my daughters for generational comparison. And received a secondary shock. Neither of the two older ones - both graduates and both historically literate knew what Dunkirk was. I was double a’d. Cue a Govian outburst about schools and the history curriculum?
Wait. I realised that I hadn’t been taught about Dunkirk either. But I didn’t have to be: my childhood and adolescence was suffused with the finest hour. My first German words I learnt half a decade before I was taught the language at school. They were Gott im Himmel, Donner und Blitzen, Achtung, Spitfeuer! And ‘‘For you, Englander, the war is over’’. I made Hurricanes, threw grenades into pillboxes and shot down Heinkels. When I was 16, Battle of Britain topped the film charts for 14 weeks. Our parents had all been there, just as no one’s seemed to have been part of the empire. After all, how do you explain a small group of white people ruling over a very large number of black and brown ones?
And, despite the Winston flurry, I think Dunkirk may be passing too; the last knockings of a myth of containment which has both sustained us and held us back. What will replace it is much harder to imagine. Something possibly much more fragmented: a Scots myth, a London 2012 diversity myth or, I fear, a negative myth of inevitable national decline.
Whatever it is, it’ll be something that is not susceptible to pedagogy, but will be created by popular culture itself. We will note it, but we can’t easily create it. The Times
After seeing the film I took this to my daughters for generational comparison. And received a secondary shock. Neither of the two older ones - both graduates and both historically literate - knew what Dunkirk was."